“Aim for the moon and if you miss it, you’ll find yourself among the stars.”, goes the expression but literally, it is not quite so, because overshooting the moon means you are adrift in space with a distance of 4.2 light years away from our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. This however, was the expression some agitators used earlier in the troubles of Cameroon‘s North West & South West Regions. Yet today there is ample evidence that their proverbial satellite is spinning out of control and is about to be lost, in other words, overshoot the moon and head into space beyond. Like that poorly instructed satellite, the troubled regions of Cameroon are tumbling out of control into more chaos and unpredictability because away from the region’s urban centres the country is all but at war.
The factors contributory to the conflict have been explored in many articles discussing the crisis and they vary considerably depending on the stance of the narrator. Although the truth was a casualty early in the conflict, now it, or its absence thereof, has become part of the troubles.
The Dimorphic Nature Of Truth
As a case in point, the government would claim the conflict was started by the separatists when they declared independence and began provoking, attacking and killing the state security services as well as destroying state property.
The separatists, on the other hand, would claim the troubles were initiated by the government in perennial marginalisation of the regions and in its heavy handedness in tackling peaceful demonstrations. They (separatists) would swear it was the government who lit the fuse when they got their leaders extradited from Nigeria and kept in confinement.
The government would accuse the separatists of burning schools, the separatists would say the schools have been destroyed by government agents; Similarly, the separatists would accuse the government soldiers of burning villages, the government would say it has been done by the separatists to tarnish the government’s image. Thus, both sides have their own interpretation events and who they blame for the current predicament They also have their own version of key events in the nation’s history such as the conduct and outcome of the plebiscite in 1961 and referendum in 1972. Likewise, the political actors on stage during that period Foncha, Jua, Endeley, Muna, Ahijo inter alia, are heroes or villains based on who is talking and their words have been cherry picked to suit one narrative or the other.
However, Cameroon is not the only country in the world currently struggling with truth and “alternate facts” dispersed on social media, a world a where contributors-cum-journalists are not bound by any code of conduct, ethics, editorial controls or ombudsmen. As Barak Obama succinctly put it, on social media, “everything is true and nothing is true”. Like a naked flame to the fabric of society, the danger cannot be understated especially in world where according to Buzzfeed, Social Media now outperforms real media, (e.g. 62% of US adults turn to Social Media for news). Little surprise then when Social Media’s role in the last US elections was scrutinized by US law makers, with Facebook, the behemoth in that sphere, facing intense pressure to deal with propaganda and misinformation aka, “Fake News”.
Ruritania Vs. Megalomania
There are some parallels between the current conflict in Cameroon and that between Ruritania and Megalomania in Ernest Gellner’s book, “Nations and Nationalism”. In the book Gellner lays blame for nationalism in Ruritania at the doorstep of the Republic of Megalomania. In Ruritania, virulent nationalism grew at the point when citizens of Ruritania became fed up with being considered second class citizens and “deplored the squalor and neglect of their home valleys”. He then discusses how at such points, nationalists exploit “real or even slight” differences between cultures in Ruritania and The Republic of Megalomania to fuel popular nationalist sentiment in Ruritania. Cue the literature on the marginalisation expressed by the anglophone regions in Cameroon, and the current troubles can be understood because as Gellner captured in one of the chapters in the book, “The course of true nationalism never did run smooth.”
The separatist-at-arms believe in the doctrine of national-self-determination and hope that their violent actions would erode the security of the regions NW & SW so that they become ungovernable spaces, where the only option for peace would be partition. They seek a creation of a separate state where the borders would truly reflect the two main national groups – Anglophone and Francophone. Nevertheless, should Wilsonianism be the answer, (that is partition for peace) then where does it stop? There are 243 National groups in Cameroon, many which can similarly be politicised into violent insurgencies – then, where does such partition end?
When asked what happened to the world that has seen the United Nations Refugee agency record 69 million people as refugees, Filippo Grandi (UN High Commissoner For Refugees) said on a recent interview on Radio 4 that the UN has become unable to solve conflict and address its root causes. The Commissioner reserved his harshest criticism for the Security Council which he said was devoid of “unity of purpose” and “political consensus” to take a firm stand against human rights violators. This is important because many in the troubled regions of Cameroon look to the UN for solutions to the humanitarian and political problems, but what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees seems to be saying is the world could not care less – or even if it did care, it is unable to muster the “unity of intent and firmness” to do anything about it due changes in global patterns and political dynamics – a direct effect from a multi-polar world where political problems are intractable and often spill over into humanitarian catastrophes.
Ego and Egoistic Tendencies
In both camps, there have been public pronouncements which principal actors have boxed themselves into a corner – be it the complete rejection of all dialogue about federalism and greater autonomy for the regions on the part of the government or the unilateral declaration of independence by the secessionists in October 2017. These are positions which could not be unwound without a considerable loss of face, esteem and credibility.
Also, the question “Qui Bono?” when asked points to the state security service (police, gendarmes and the army) who now have, thanks to the conflict, more being spent by the state on security to sustain the many operations they pursue to keep control of the troubled regions. Similarly, those who thrive in lawless environments e.g. burglars and highway brigands find the separatist cloak irresistible and it is boon time for their crime.
What Strategies Are at Play?
Most of the separatists bearing arms understand they have neither the resources in manpower nor military hardware to defeat the state. So, they resort to tactical skirmishes here and there to stretch out the security services and make it costly in terms of lives and resources. To the authorities in charge of the regions, it may seem like a macabre version of “whack the mole” as they deal with incidents in one area only for the same problem to re-emerge a few miles down the road.
While the military hide and seek continues, the separatists are also bent on bringing the regions to their knees economically through calls for ghost towns on certain days of the week, disrupting operations in PAMOL and CDC (two of the SW Region’s large employers) and the blocking of roads all of which with the military operations foster an air of insecurity and loss of business confidence. Thus wary investors and tourists simply stay away from the regions.
Education of youth has also been caught in the cross fire and many establishments have been put to torch where they defied the separatists call for them to close their gates to students. A strategic move which is baffling to say the least, as education is core. Knowledge is what youth of the regions need to fight injustice. Precisely the reason why even at the height of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, there was the insistence for black children to go to school.
It is worth noting therefore that the only other organisations-at-arms currently preventing students from engaging in their inalienable right are Boko-Haram and Taliban.
The war is also being fought digitally because in this media age, where information can be broadcast and disseminated to the furthest reaches of the world at a touch of a button, where images and videos of a Battalion Intervention Rapide (BIR) unit can be online before echoes of the gunshots have attenuated, the PR war is perhaps the most difficult for the state because it is a world where David (the armed separatists) would always win sympathy in a fight against Goliath (the state), no matter what the prelude was. Important to note too, that there have been atrocities committed in both camps, as acknowledged by the US Ambassador, Peter Barlerin.
Overall the strategic aim for the secessionists has been to declare independence and in the ensuing conflict with the state, hope it is bloody enough for the international community to take note and perhaps to trigger an intervention on par with what happened between Kosovo and Serbia, to forcibly re-partition the country.
But in such an eventuality, that intervention can only come from the UN Security Council where there are five potential reasons why such a resolution may not be forth coming. Firstly, the permanent member, France would simply use its veto – Cameroon is in Francophone Africa, which it (rightly or wrongly) considers its sphere of influence. Secondly United Kingdom which has had troubles with Northern Ireland and is still facing separatist intentions from Scotland would not give much traction to such a resolution. Thirdly, China, which faces separatists in Taiwan and Mongolia is more likely not to support such a resolution. Nor, would the Russians who have traditionally taken an exception to such resolutions. (Russia did support a humanitarian intervention in Libya which turned into regime change and they are still quite prickly about it – qv. Resolutions On Syria.) Lastly, in the US, Trumpism’s “America First” rhetoric means exactly that. That said, such a resolution could possibly draw American interest if the new nation would be a destination for US Steel or Bourbon.
On the part of the government, they have relied heavily on a military response as its strategy for dealing with the conflict via a fortification of the cosmopolitan areas in the affected regions and responding firmly to any threats or attacks. It has been costly in terms of lives which according to the government, 42 gendarmes, 32 soldiers and 7 Police officers have perished in the line of duty.
It has also been costly in terms of loss of state property, taxation revenue and goodwill, because the government’s image has been impaired internationally with the accusations by Human Rights Watch of human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, executions and burning of villages – accusations which the government vehemently denies.
Nevertheless, it has not all been military strategy from the government because from time to time, state media carries news high powered delegations to the troubled regions, of committees being set up, and consultations with local chiefs, elites and politicians for a way out. But there has been little results the field thus far to show that the government has a non-military handle on the crisis.
That assessment was until last week, when the government announced a 12 Billion FCFA package for the rehabilitation of displaced people in the conflict affected regions. A move which has been met with derision from the separatists – no surprises there.
Finally, the government has also made no secret that it is willing to play the long game perhaps with an eye on past the conflicts in NI, Basque and Colombia inter alia, which indicate it can chart a path to peace with time.
The Path To Peace
Most, if not all, conflicts documented in history have ended at negotiations on a table. So, the question is not if to negotiate a peaceful settlement but when to negotiate? Now, or later, when many more souls would have perished?
The seemingly intractable conflict in Northern Ireland ended because of dialogue and the willingness of all sides in the conflict to work towards peace. Other notable enablers (not exhaustive) of peace in this and other conflicts include the insertion of independent adjudicator/arbitrator, international figures heads of state staking their reputations in urging and supporting all sides to work for peace, social pressure through peace rallies, and a closely followed road map – cease fires and decommissioning of weapons, pardoning / freeing of prisoners and the inclusion into the political agenda.
Once gone, peace is elusive to reacquire as the warmongers (on both sides) would continue their acts of infamy in a bid to derail the process however a dedication to peace ensures those Bill Clinton termed “yesterday’s men” can never succeed.
At the core of the Northern Ireland peace process which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement were the Mitchell Principles which signatories completely rejected and eschewed violence in the following clauses:
- To agree to democratic and peaceful means to resolve political problems
- Total disarmament by paramilitary organisations
- To agree that the disarmament process has to be verifiable
- To renounce force and the use of force by others
- To agree to abide by the terms of the negotiations
- Stop the killings, threats and kidnapping
The Irish Republican Army rescinded violence after three decades as they came to the realization that it was not a viable long-term strategy. The Basque Separatists (ETA) gave up their struggle after five decades, likewise the FARC of Colombia gave up their armed struggle against the government after a similar length of time. Half a century of pointlessness in which an initial bruise on the nation’s collective psyche was left to fester into a sore. The separatists in the troubled regions who have taken up arms in furtherance of their cause need to understand that this is well trodden path to naught, otherwise other regions like Kashmir, Casamance and Katanga would all be independent countries today.
Likewise, the “hawks” in the government must have realized by now that the iron fist comprising of the Human Rights Watch alleged summary arrest and detentions, targeted killings, destruction of homes and villages, trial by military courts etc., really does not make friends but foes. It doesn’t cower the population but emboldens defiance. If the iron fist strategy or its variants worked then the state of Israel (which has also come under sharp criticism from the Human Rights Council) would have resolved the long standing Palestinian problem.
In a Guardian interview with Senator George Mitchell on what made the Northern Ireland Peace Process work, he stated that arriving successfully at the peace destination was contingent on all must parties being aboard the peace train, including men of violence. But according to Cameroon’s Minister of Communications and government spokesman, in a recent interview, dialogue with separatists-at-arms was out of the question.
In a similar manner, the United Kingdom refused to talk to the IRA, and for a while between 1988 and 1994 went as far as enacting voice bans on broadcast media. Yet, the UK government did eventually talk to the men of violence and the ensuing process culminated in the Good Friday Agreement which underscores peace in Northern Ireland till today. Still, all-inclusive talks were not the only recommendation from the Senator who also advocated impartiality, flexibility to accept compromise, an unwavering persistence as well as national reconciliation for an enduring peace.
At this junction without being clairvoyant it is difficult to predict what happens next. But a probable prediction, should the troubles continue, is that the current vigilante groups mushrooming in various communities would begin coalescing and transform into new paramilitary organisations in the troubled regions to fight against the separatists-at-arms. That eventuality would not be pretty.
Looking back in the intervening period since the marriage as captured in the poem Lamentations a lot has changed with the time. The population size and demography have changed and with them the structure and culture of society in the troubled regions. The regions especially the cosmopolitan areas are now a blend of cultures indicative from the way people dress, the music they dance to, the way they worship, the food they eat, the stories they tell, the figureheads they respect and listen to, the movies they watch, the football teams they support, the current pop stars they admire and last but by no means the way they interreact via the internet and mobile phones
With all these changes it boggles the mind why anyone would want to turn the clock back to a time when you could count how many people had phones, short wave radios and to send an instant message via a telegram you had to be wealthy or someone important. Although true bilingualism in Cameron conjures up images of a donkey and a carrot, it is safe to say in the seventies there were fewer people bilingual than there is now. In the same vein, there are currently many more people now than at reunification who hail from West of the Mungo and have settled with their families in the East and vice versa.
Thus in the decades since reunification, a cultural omelette has been whipped in the regions and realistically, there can be no unscrambling of those eggs. This is an anathema to the separatist ear, it yet it must be said. The Lawyers strike in 2016 was much about reminding the cook not to forget the Anglophone ingredient which together with the Francophone ingredient would give that omelette a distinctive taste for everyone. Nevertheless the armed conflict between the separatists-at-arms and the state security services has simply upended a bottle of the hottest Banso pepper into the nation’s dish – rendering it unpalatable for everyone.
Also difficult to swallow is the banter about splitting of the country along the lines of what is proposed by some separatists on Social Media, “All Francophones going back East and all Anglophones returning West”. This is simply folly and to continue the culinary analogy, pie in the sky which if served down on terra-firma, would expose a gory hellish restaurant like the world has never seen since India and Pakistan sacrificed a million lives in 1947 for independent countries which, with all due respect to Indians & Pakistanis, to date are still mired in social injustice, inequity, corruption and crime.
The article has looked at five factors fuelling the conflict in the North West and South West regions in Cameroon, including the dimorphic nature of truth, Wilsonianism, nationalism in Gellner’s Ruritania, ego and global multipolarity. It has also looked at the strategies in play by the two sides (the state security services and the separatists-at-arms) involved in the conflict. The article underscores the pointlessness of the armed conflict citing lessons from the Northern Ireland’s IRA, Basque’s ETA and Colombia’s FARC, where these groups engaged their respective states in bloody conflict only to give up arms decades on, and choosing to resolve their problems through peaceful means. The article urges both sides to work towards peace and cites George Mitchell’s Peace Principles as a model that could be followed in searching a path to peace. There are some who argue the situation is about governance – or the lack of it. If this is so then there is no better way to change things than via the upcoming presidential elections (which the separatists scoff at and have vowed to disrupt). Nevertheless, while the eyes of the country are fixated on the troubles in the Anglophone regions, some political parties are making serious in-roads in preparation for the next all important chance Cameroonians would have to deliver a verdict on the government. With elections ahead there is hope that pressure on the government for a conducive environment may give way to overtures for peace. Such gestures towards peace would, in continuing the analogy from the opening paragraph, see the moon’s gravitational force capture that soon-to-be-lost satellite and keep it in orbit so that it would re-emerge from traversing the moon’s dark-side, back into the light, and be accessible once more to ground-based controllers whose uplink telemetry would, restore control and function with realistic mission orders.
By Lloney Monono, UK